June 3, 2019 / 3:08 AM / 3 months ago

Illinois lawmakers vote to allow sports betting, approve Chicago casino

CHICAGO (Reuters) - A major gambling expansion in Illinois that will give Chicago its first casino, allow betting on sports and raise money for a massive infrastructure program won final approval on Sunday in the state legislature.

lllinois Governor J.B. Pritzker delivers remarks at the North America's Building Trades Unions (NABTU) 2019 legislative conference in Washington, U.S., April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon/Files

The Democratic-controlled state Senate also took final votes to pass a $40.1 billion general funds budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 after the state House of Representatives completed its work on Saturday.

Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker, who has said he looks forward to signing the gaming expansion bill, applauded lawmakers for completing “one of the most ambitious and consequential legislative sessions in this state’s history.”

“We worked hard in a bipartisan fashion to pass a budget and to get a massive, important infrastructure bill passed,” Pritzker told reporters.

The governor had pushed for sports betting, and legislation was approved to allow it at casinos, racetracks and sports venues.

Eight U.S. states currently offer sports betting, while four other states have approved it so far this year.

Illinois, which already has 10 casinos, would add six more, with Chicago getting its first, which would be privately owned, along with slots at the city’s O’Hare and Midway Airports.

Chicago’s share of casino revenue would be earmarked for its underfunded police and firefighter pension funds.

The bulk of new gambling revenue, along with money from higher taxes on vehicle fuel, parking, cigarettes and other measures, would help fund a $45 billion, six-year “Rebuild Illinois” capital plan for roads, bridges, mass transit, schools, universities, and other projects.

Illinois, which has the lowest credit ratings among states, would take on considerably more debt after lawmakers approved $20.8 billion of bonds for capital improvements and an additional $1.2 billion of bonds to put a dent in the state’s backlog of unpaid bills, which currently totals an estimated $6.3 billion.

A huge $133.5 billion unfunded pension liability and chronic structural budget deficits have pushed Illinois’ ratings down to a notch or two above the junk level.

With credit rating analysts closely watching the state’s fiscal progress, Pritzker’s office, citing an unexpected revenue surge in April, dropped a plan to reduce fiscal 2020 pension contributions.

The full $8.37 billion pension payment is included in the budget, which lawmakers said was balanced. The spending plan counts on new revenue from internet retailers, an assessment on managed healthcare organizations and a tax amnesty program.

Last month, the legislature voted to put a constitutional amendment on the November 2020 ballot asking voters to adopt graduated personal income tax rates to replace the current flat rate. Pritzker championed the amendment as a way to raise about $3.4 billion annually to address the state’s fiscal woes.

Lawmakers also made Illinois the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana for adults, a move that could raise as much as $500 million a year once fully implemented.

Reporting by Karen Pierog; Editing by Peter Cooney

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